Sunday, October 05, 2008

Film Review: A Song for Argyris


That is the theme of Stefan Haupt's 2006 documentary A Song for Argyris. Argyris Sfountouris is one of millions of people whose lives were destroyed by World War II. A young boy of nearly four in Distomo, Greece, his parents and much of his extended family were killed in Nazi massacre in 1944. The Nazis were ambushed in the road above Distomo and they took it out on the village.

What must this do to a young boy? He was just old enough to remember the horrors of what he saw; events that shaped the rest of his life. His grandparents, who survived the massacre, were unable to take care of him and his youngest sister. They were sent to an orphanage. His sister was affected permanently; she doesn't seem mentally retarded but she has never been able to live by herself and remains in a home until the present. Argyris became a quiet, smart, and intense boy whose impressed his elders. After a few years in the home, he was selected to live in an international orphanage in Switzerland that brought orphans from around Europe to live together as a reconciliation project. He took to the orphanage and stayed in Switzerland to complete his studies as a scientist.

Meanwhile, while he became committed to democracy while in Switzerland, Greece was undergoing deep turmoil. Always a frontier of the Cold War, the immediate postwar years saw the Marshall Plan combine with repression of leftists to keep the Greeks from becoming communist. Argyris was still a child in Switzerland and he had no control over it. But in 1967, a right-wing military coup created a dictatorship lasting until 1974. By this time, Argyris is a grown man, a Greek intellectual, and a human rights advocate. He played a small role in the resistance from his Swiss exile, passing along banned literature and organizing resistance concerts and other public events condemning the military regime. For this, his passport was revoked. The Swiss allowed him to stay but he couldn't leave and became a man without a country.

After he received Swiss citizenship in the early 1970s, Argyris went on to serve in relief and human rights operations in Africa and Asia. However, little time is spent on this portion of his life.

In fact, about halfway through the film, I began to wonder just what the point of this documentary was. Argyris is a pretty interesting guy and has lived an intense life, but I wasn't seeing a compelling reason to make a movie about him.

But then, we get to the point--Argyris is spending his later years fighting for German recognition of the Distomo massacre. Here we understand what Haupt is going after. This is a German film that is really about exposing not only the need for Argyris to remember what happened to his village but the German compulsion to forget all the atrocities they committed in World War II. Argyris could have gone on with his life. He was a young boy after all and has had an incredible array of opportunities in his life. But he chose to make remembrance the central point of his existence. He and his his sisters sued the German government in the 1990s, demanding reparations for what happened to them. After World War II, Germany was supposed to pay reparations, but the importance of West Germany to the United States during the Cold War led these to be forgotten about very quickly.

Should a reunited Germany be forced to pay their debt to the survivors of their actions? I don't know. It's clear from Argyris that money is not going to ease his pain, nor does he really care about it. He wants contrition. And that is exactly what the Germans have trouble expressing. Haupt is clearly disturbed by his nation's forgetting and Argyris serves to remind the Germans of their dark and still fairly recent past. The German ambassador to Greece was invited to a conference held in Distomo for the 50th anniversary of the massacre; not only did he refuse to attend, he didn't even respond and sent note takers to the conference surreptitiously. This was clearly an outrage. For the 60th anniversary in 2004, the German ambassador did come and apologize for his country. But this apology clearly did not satisfy Argyris; he rails against it afterwards. But would anything satisfy him? Can anything make up for the loss of your parents and much of your extended family, the years in an orphanage, and being made an exile? Probably not. But it's not as if the Germans have tried very hard either.

A Song for Argyris is not a great documentary. The narrative structure is a bit confusing, too little is made of much of Argyris' life, and it takes an awfully long time to get to the real point. But it is certainly a thought-provoking film about memory, nationality, and war.